Cooperation on Climate Is Emerging in the Middle East
This article is part of our special report on the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
In December 2020, the Israeli company Watergen signed a partnership agreement with the Abu Dhabi-based multinational firm Al Dahra to install their fresh water production devices in the United Arab Emirates. The deal was notable both for its timing and the parties involved.
Arriving just two months after the signing of the Abraham Accords — an agreement forged by the Trump administration that established diplomatic relations between Israel and a handful of formerly adversarial Arab nations — the Watergen deal soon resulted in dozens of water production units operating in commercial and government buildings across the United Arab Emirates.
The partnership was among the first collaborations between Israel and these onetime foes aimed at combating climate-related challenges such as rising temperatures and shrinking water resources. Since then, nearly a half-dozen additional like-minded agreements have been discussed or reached, including a plan to generate hydrogen power in Morocco and a United States-supported and Emirates-funded deal for Jordan to sell solar power to Israel in exchange for fresh water.
As the World Economic Forum meets in Davos, Switzerland, next week, under the theme of “Cooperation in a Fragmented World,” the most unlikely of places — the Middle East — may be offering hints of how that can be achieved. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, there has been progress on the diplomatic and economic fronts, but especially in addressing the global climate crisis — a major focus of the forum.
Kelsey Goodman, associate director for the Middle East and North Africa for the World Economic Forum, said “the climate and energy nexus is top of mind at the annual meeting,” particularly when it comes to the Mideast-North Africa region, known as MENA.
Those nations are expected to turn out in record numbers at Davos, whose talks are being seen as a springboard for next year’s COP28 climate summit to be held in Dubai, Ms. Goodman said. The trend, she said, toward greater engagement on climate issues from MENA policymakers and business leaders is a reflection of momentum on climate solutions in the region.
The accords have played a role in driving that momentum, experts said. Spearheaded by Jared Kushner, former President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law and a presidential adviser, they ushered in a long-eluded normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Since then, agreements on defense and tourism have been reached between Israel and the Persian Gulf states; over the past two years, for instance, with the country now open to them, some 500,000 Israelis visited theEmirates.
The Emirates also recently signed a first-of-its-kind deal to acquire Israeli-made air defense systems. And academic cooperation partnerships, like the one between Israel’s University of Haifa and the Emirates’ Zayed University for joint research on environmental issues, have been formed.
But with their shared desert topography and collective climate crises, green partnerships like the Watergen agreement have become among the most vibrant arenas for cooperation. Israel provides decades of environmental research, technology and manufacturing, while the oil-rich gulf nations deliver funding and access to new markets.
“This type of regional harmonization makes a lot of sense,” Ms. Goodman said, “because the Middle East and gulf are far more suited to tech-based — rather than nature-based — environmental solutions” to climate change. “Embracing alternative technologies is far more ideal in this region than, say, trying to plant new forests in deserts without water,” Ms. Goodman added.
The accords are not without controversy, particularly involving Sudan’s addition to the group. But shared problems — as well as the potential for making enormous sums of money — are helping the nations overcome decades of discord and demonstrating how cross-border cooperation could lead to meaningful solutions, experts said.
“We are coming with technology, they are coming with technology, we are coming with funding and they are coming with funding,” said Amir Hayek, Israel’s first-ever ambassador to Abu Dhabi, about the nations’ environmental agreements. “Israel and the U.A.E. are cooperating on a fully equal level.”
Michael Rutman, co-chief executive of Watergen, whose atmospheric water generation systems are capable of converting vapor into potable water, said cooperation makes sense. “Israel and the U.A.E. are two countries with an intuitive understanding of what it means to live with a shortage of fresh water,” he said.
In the Emirates, some 90 percent of the drinking water is supplied through desalination, an expensive and energy-intensive process. Yet while the Emirates — the third richest country in the world — may be able to afford desalination, the nation is paying a high environmental cost because of the fossil fuels consumed and the vast quantities of hypersaline water it leaves behind.
“The salty, briny water is very, very hard on the environment,” Mr. Rutman said.
In 2021, a trilateral energy-for-water agreement was signed by Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Under this plan — which was achieved with help from the U.S. State Department — the Emirates-backed renewable energy company Masdar will construct a sizable solar-power facility in Jordan that will generate electricity and sell it to Israel.
At the same time, Israel will sell desalinated water to Jordan,